Aug 24, 2022

  • Ryan Hockensmith


      Ryan Hockensmith is a Penn State graduate who joined ESPN in 2001. He is a survivor of bacterial meningitis, which caused him to have multiple amputation surgeries on his feet. He is a proud advocate for those with disabilities and addiction issues. He covers everything from the NFL and UFC to pizza-chucking and analysis of Tom Cruise’s running ability.

THE WALL OF FAKE WEAPONS is about 30 feet long, and Dale Brown talks about each one like it’s a crucial family member at his self-defense school here in Detroit.

He starts with the plastic batons. He picks one up, cradles it gently for a second and then takes one mock swing before he moves to the bats. Then he walks past the dozens of pretend knives, and then he’s about to start describing all of his fake guns when he passes a plastic ax hanging nearby …

Come on.

An ax?

He shakes his head vigorously to signal that This. Is. Important. “You don’t want your first time coming up against an ax to be in a real-life situation,” he says.

He’s serious. Extremely serious. As the man now known as “The Detroit Self-Defense Guy” speaks, it’s obvious that his core message comes from his heart, underneath his infamous black and gray outfit that Space Force ought to consider. Brown wants the whole world — the universe, really — to put just as much serious thought into ax attack survivability as he has.

Inside the Detroit Urban Survival Training lies a 30-foot wall showcasing fake weapons Brown uses to teach survival techniques in Ferndale, Michigan. Sarah Rice for ESPN

Brown is a whirlwind 5-foot-9, 240-pound barrel of intensity, and has a personality that toggles between life-or-death conversations about the necessity for ax defense, to funny voices and over-the-top facial expressions as he mocks the people who mock his uber-seriousness. The switch he hits between earnestness and total goofball is a big reason he has become an internet and sports world sensation.

But make no mistake, here at D.U.S.T. headquarters (Detroit Urban Survival Training), Dale Brown mostly evangelizes a heartfelt belief that every American ought to have an extensive game plan for every single bad thing that could happen. He has hundreds of tactics and techniques, and sometimes publishes multiple videos per day to his YouTube channel, which has 1.7 million subscribers.

He has been spoofed on SNL, been imitated by Odell Beckham Jr. on a touchdown celebration, walked UFC fighter Joaquin Buckley to the cage as a cornerman and been the Pistons’ guest of honor at a 2022 game. When the Lions celebrated schedule release day in May, they had Brown do it. He’s talking to the Tigers about throwing out a first pitch in August. The Dale Brown tour has no end in sight.

Brown demonstrates an arm lock on NFL legend Barry Sanders on Aug. 9. The pair were celebrating the launch of a new Lefty’s Cheesesteaks franchise in Detroit. Sarah Rice for ESPN

But Brown’s techniques have drawn heavy skepticism from the MMA and self-defense communities. Critics say he’s a charlatan whose teachings are a joke — or worse. “Guys like that get people killed,” MMA legend Bas Rutten recently said on Ariel Helwani’s “The MMA Hour.”

That would be a stinging indictment for most people. But when Rutten’s comments come up, Brown laughs out loud repeatedly as he drives his SUV around Detroit in late June. He keeps blurting out, “Bas Rutten!” in increasingly incredulous tones.

He loves it. “Bas Rutten was talking about me? I am nobody. Who are you to say my name?”

As he marvels at Rutten’s criticism, it’s hard not to wonder how any human being could sound so honored by such a devastating takedown. Rutten didn’t just say Brown’s teachings are bad — he said they’re so bad that people could die.

But Brown just shrugs — and laughs some more.

“Bas Rutten, you’re the guy,” he says. “You’re talking about a nobody. Who am I to you? You’re a real-world champion, and I’m a dude in Detroit. Seriously. I’m just some dude in Detroit.”

This dude in Detroit is a complex, intriguing character who can be hard to unpack. For all the Commander Dale Brown viral videos that are somehow hilarious and serious and important and frivolous all at once, there’s also the Dale Brown who runs a successful security company in Detroit and is known for providing free protection to domestic violence survivors.

So, is he for real? Does he know what he’s doing? Are his videos a joke?

The answer is … yes.

WHEN THE UFC LAUNCHED in 1993, the organization promised to decide, once and for all, what the best fighting style is. Almost 30 years later, after many twists and turns, we now know that the best style to win cage fights is actually a little bit of all of them.

“We’ve learned more about what works in fighting in the past 20 years than the previous 20,000 years,” says Marcus Kowal, a former pro-MMA fighter and ex-Swedish special forces officer.

Momentum has swung from Brazilian jiu-jitsu to wrestling, to Muay Thai and on and on. Almost every martial art has had its 15 minutes of Octagon fame, and that has fueled an unprecedented spike in virtually every individual discipline. Self-defense has come along for the ride, often getting lumped in with martial arts instructions, usually taught by the same people.

Statista, a global data collection service, estimates that the number of Americans enrolled in some kind of martial arts class has tripled in the past 10 years, to about 9.4 million in 2022. The number of places teaching martial arts has exploded from 9,284 in 2012 to 50,490 in 2022, employing around 72,000 people. Another data collection service, MRI-Simmons, projects that 4.267 million Americans age 12 and older will take a martial arts class in 2022. Overall, the martial arts and self-defense market is a $4 billion industry.

With no real governing body, it can be difficult to figure out where to train and who is a qualified teacher. Many instructors have black belts, Golden Gloves titles and other impressive personal accomplishments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good at teaching others.

On the flip side, some of the very best martial arts instructors in the world never fought professionally. Several of the UFC’s top coaches — Ray Longo, Trevor Wittman, Greg Jackson — have a combined zero professional fights. Gracie disciple John Danaher is widely considered the Gregg Popovich of jiu-jitsu, and like Pop, never competed professionally.

All of those coaches, though, have established lineages, and lineage is everything in the martial arts community. So Brown’s eclectic background makes heads explode. He wrestled for a few years as a kid, was in the Army for three years in his early 20s and then studied sporadically in various martial arts disciplines. He says most of his techniques have been tested in the streets, not at tournaments with rules and weight classes.

His YouTube channel is a steady stream of videos, sometimes two or three a day. Many are desperate situations involving guns and knives, or attackers jumping a single person.

But he occasionally drifts into videos that are straight-up one-on-one hand-to-hand combat, and those are the ones that draw the most ire from martial artists. “There’s a reason that you never see Dale’s one-on-one techniques in a UFC fight,” Kowal says. “It’s because they don’t actually work.”

Kowal calls D.U.S.T. a “McDojo,” and Steven Williams, a black belt under Danaher and a prominent online self-defense personality, calls Brown’s brand of teachings “bullshido.”

“Some of his videos are the most asinine s— I’ve ever seen,” Williams says. “He’ll do anything for attention. That’s who he is.”

To be fair, though, criticism of Brown has become a nice business itself. Brown makes the point that many of his critics mock him for feeding the content beast … by creating content about his content.

“We’re all making money here,” Williams says. “If the question is if I benefited off criticizing Dale, the answer is yes. I think it benefited both of us.”

Dr. Mark Phillips was a little more gentle when he evaluated Brown. Phillips, a black belt in jiu-jitsu and a brown belt in judo with a Ph.D. in criminal psychology, chuckled his way through a nearly seven-minute dissection of Brown’s tactics on his YouTube show, Fight SCIENCE.

He liked Brown. Liked a few things Brown was teaching. Liked his passion for self-defense and ability to raise awareness. But would he teach those techniques himself? “I will say I wouldn’t necessarily put my life on the line on the basis of some of those things he’s teaching,” he says. “But look, the chances of someone using this or even thinking about it who have half a brain are quite low.”

Phillips quickly pivots, though, to make a point that Brown himself says over and over again: There is a big difference between MMA and self-defense training.

It is a key distinction. Martial arts and self-defense are often conflated, and that is a dangerous misunderstanding. As Phillips says, most of the best self-defense tactics are the things you can’t do in the UFC: eye gouges, bites, groin strikes and finger twists.

“I’m trying to help people not get killed,” Brown says. “I’m not talking about a sport here. This is about saving lives.”

Brown toggles back and forth from pushing back on the criticism to laughing along with it. That ability to roll with the heat just might be the very best self-defense technique that Brown has ever displayed. “When he became a meme, he leaned into the meme,” Williams says.

But about eight months ago, Brown couldn’t laugh anymore about one particular critic. The guy had relentlessly been blasting Brown’s videos, calling him a con man over and over again.

Brown reached out and asked the guy if he would be willing to meet up to test the Detroit instructor’s tactics up close. He was even willing to come to the former pro fighter’s gym in California.

“I admired that, so I obviously said yes,” the critic says now.

The instructor? Marcus Kowal.

FROM THE MINUTE BROWN arrived at Kowal’s California gym, cameras were rolling — on both sides. The self-defense content machine wasn’t going to feed itself.

Kowal spoke first.

“Dale, I want to apologize for calling you a con man,” he said. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe in what you’re teaching.”

He then interviewed Brown for 20 minutes, and Kowal gently probed on Brown’s background. It’s a perfect synopsis of the gulf between how martial arts instructors see teaching versus how Brown sees it.

Kowal wants to hear specific teachers and achievements within martial arts from Brown. But Brown emphasizes that he has an eclectic background involving lots of sporadic training within a slew of disciplines. He says his training can’t and shouldn’t be evaluated based on sports success, that it works in real life instead of tournaments.

They shake hands at the end of the interview, then start working through Brown’s techniques. Brown demonstrates multiple moves on Kowal, then they discuss. Most of the videos end up in the same basic circular debate: Kowal thinks Brown’s techniques might work for only a powerful guy like Dale Brown, and Brown makes the case that most attackers are not gifted fighters like Marcus Kowal.

They never really get anywhere with each other, though the videos are cordial. If judges were scoring their conversation, it sure seems like it’d be called a draw.

At the end of the session, they shake hands again, smile and both start posting videos. Kowal put up nine videos on Instagram, and Brown posted five on YouTube.

But as the months have passed, neither seems particularly warm and fuzzy anymore. Kowal still thinks Brown’s training is only slightly better than not getting any training at all. “In person, he was very friendly and charismatic,” Kowal says. “I want to say this in a respectful manner because the Brown did show up. But a lot of the techniques that he teaches would not work in a real-life situation.”

Brown tsks and calls Kowal a “punk” and other choice words — he feels completely vindicated by the trip. “He’s a sports guy who didn’t win much and has a small school in a very obscure area,” Brown says. “Not one of my techniques failed in his gym, and I was being as nice as I could be. I didn’t hurt him, and I could have hurt him.”

A training dummy at the Detroit Urban Survival Training center in Ferndale, Michigan. Residents often hire Brown and his employees to patrol local neighborhoods. Sarah Rice for ESPN

As he talks about Kowal in the lobby of D.U.S.T. headquarters, Brown leans back in one of about 10 high-backed black chairs that seem like they’re straight out of a Langley situation room.

The door to D.U.S.T. is locked on this day, but there’s a click and his wife, Mirela, lets the visitor into the room. Brown doesn’t even turn around. “You’re about to be in a comedy bit,” he says, then spins his seat around to greet a local comedian who has a skit he wants to do with Brown. Brown knew the guy was coming — but not much else.

The comic, Glen Paige, is known on IG as TattooManPaige. He lays out the basics of a 30-second video that he wants to do. Paige will be wearing extremely tight shorts when he gets catcalled by a local DJ friend of his, Mez the Monster. Brown will jump in and teach Paige an anti-catcalling self-defense tactic. That’s about the extent of the script.

Say whatever you want about the tactics themselves, but Brown is a short-form content black belt. He knows what the people want and how they want it, and he knows how to use his own self-seriousness to be funny.

“This should be the thumbnail,” he says, and he folds his hands into what has become his trademark pose, the steepling gesture that he says conveys confidence and competence. He saw German chancellor Angela Merkel do it once, and he has adopted it in everything he does now, from Cameos to fan pictures to IG thumbnails.

Over the next half hour, Mirela records on her phone as the three stars do a few takes. Brown garbles his words once or twice, and he later mentions that the Lions’ schedule release took him six hours to nail.

But eventually, they nail it, then try Brown’s suggestion to do another outside. Paige isn’t so sure he needs anything more than what they just did, but Brown convinces him to try it. Five minutes later, Brown has crushed his part again, and Paige has two videos instead of one. The D.U.S.T. facility is as much a content studio as it is a self-defense school.

A few days later, Paige posts the video, and it’s impossible to not look at the still image of him and Brown, both in a steepling pose, and think it is indeed a highly competent thumbnail.

ABOUT 7 P.M. on a Wednesday in June, Mirela tells her husband she’s going to take their daughter and head home from D.U.S.T. for the day.

The Browns have quite a love story that began where so many great romances start — at a minor surgical procedure. They first met in 2009, when Mirela, a Bosnian immigrant, took a security job with Brown’s company. “I couldn’t stand him at first,” she says. “He worked us too hard.”

But they grew to respect each other on the job, two grinders who walk toward fights. They had each been married earlier in life and had a child from their previous relationships.

They’d both begun to feel a spark between each other when Dale asked her if she’d come with him for hernia surgery. As he drifted under, he looked at her and said, “I love you.” They’ve been together ever since. “He’s literally my best friend,” Mirela says. “I like everything about him.”

They’ve now been married for nine years, and their daughter, Indira, is 7. She’s quite a self-defense star herself, appearing in her own D.U.S.T. videos sometimes. It’s amusing to watch Commander Dale Brown melt into Dad Dale Brown. At one point on a Wednesday in June, Indira comes into the lobby and asks her dad to open up a bag of cheese puffs, and he does … but he swipes one for himself. She growls and takes the bag back. He asks for a second but she glares and says that will be his only cheese puff, thank you very much, and she leaves the room.

An hour later, she comes back in, this time with a long plastic knife from the weapons wall. He’s in the middle of talking about the time in 2005 when he got so horrified watching people suffer after Hurricane Katrina that he packed up a truck and drove right into New Orleans. He took his dog, a rifle, gas, food and water. He drove for 24 hours to get there, spent 40 hours handing out everything he had, and then he headed home with an empty truck.

Brown works with his 7-year-old daughter, Indira, on disarming techniques using fake weapons. Sarah Rice for ESPN

He’s scrolling through photos of that trip when Indira sneaks up behind. She wraps one arm around his neck in a rear-naked choke and initiates a self-defense drill on him. It’s typical wrestling around with your rambunctious kid, just with the D.U.S.T. twist of a full-on chokehold and a plastic knife.

“Dad is in a meeting, baby girl,” he tries to tell her.

He says it a few more times, but she never stops hanging off his neck.

“Don’t play with a knife,” he says. “Go play with Mommy. I’m in a meeting.”

Suddenly she accidentally jabs Brown in the eye with the plastic knife, and Brown lets out a loud, “Ow!” Over the course of several days with Brown, including multiple demonstrations of self-defense tactics, it’s the only time he seems vulnerable.

“Sorry,” Indira says, and hustles away, mortified. He shakes his head and keeps going.

A little while later, Mirela and Indira leave, and Brown heads for the back exit of D.U.S.T., where his SUV is parked. He’s going to make some drives around neighborhoods his Threat Management company does security for.

As popular as his videos are, they don’t yet completely pay the bills. His income has gone up by 10 times in the past two years, and can be broken into two categories, which just so happen to be the two people living within him.

One income stream comes from Commander Dale Brown, infamous self-defense character. That’s the YouTube videos, personal appearances, Cameos and individual lessons. Since Commander Dale went viral, an hourlong private session with him has gone from $100 to $1,000.

But the bulk of Brown’s considerable wealth still comes from being regular old security business owner Dale Brown. Threat Management has contracts to monitor neighborhoods across Detroit, in good spots and bad. He gets as much as $20,000 per month per neighborhood for 24-hour attention from him and his staff of about 25 full-time D.U.S.T. employees.

Brown cracks open a Gatorade and starts driving. He is fearless about pretty much everything in life, so he’s not shy about operating a large car while also scrolling through photos on his phone of his 9,000-square-foot home on a private lake in a Detroit suburb.

He pauses for a few seconds when he’s asked if he’s a millionaire. “Yeah, let’s just say things are going well for us,” he says.

He announces that he first wants to check in on Palmer Woods, which Brown calls the nicest neighborhood in Detroit. He cruises the streets for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries with residents. They all seem to know and like him, and he punctuates the end of every interaction with a really fast, upbeat “Good-good.”

One guy comes over and asks Brown about the house up the street that has been having “the stripper parties.” Brown nods his head and says he’s aware, that they’re keeping an eye on the situation.

“There’s nothing you can do about it?” the guy asks.

Brown shakes his head. He’s adamant about how he sees his role in security, which is safety, not arrests or violence. He often will discover intoxicated people trespassing in some of the neighborhoods, and he offers them a ride home before any kind of muscle. He has been doing it for 27 years and says he has never been in any hot water with law enforcement.

He says there haven’t really been any laws broken, so the guy eventually shrugs and leaves.

“Good-good,” Brown says out the window, and he puts the car in drive. Brown meanders around the neighborhood, going under 5 mph at times, silently surveilling every street. Over the next hour, Brown cruises through a few more neighborhoods, including one he calls the worst neighborhood in Detroit.

It’s a slow night. Brown says it hasn’t always been like this in the areas he was hired to work in, and he has videos to show for it.

One is of a guy who appears to be under the influence, trying to get into a gated community that D.U.S.T. serves. He spits in Brown’s face, and Brown somehow maintains his composure. Eventually, they spot the guy breaking into houses, and Brown calls the police while continuously talking calmly to the belligerent guy.

Brown takes great pride in his ability to de-escalate situations with words, and he stopped carrying a gun a long time ago. “I don’t need one,” he says. If you want to know if he believes in his own tactics, he says that’s the evidence.

In the video, police arrive a few minutes later. Brown is walking alongside the guy with his hand on his shoulder. When the two cops get to him to arrest him, the video shows one officer trying to pry the guy’s hands behind his back but he battles it. She tries to pull his hands back again, and Brown shows her how to lock his arms into place. Then the police haul him off.

Perhaps the proudest work the Browns do is with domestic violence victims in Detroit. The day before this quiet cruise through the city streets, they’d gotten a call about a woman who filed a restraining order against her husband. She’d asked for someone to accompany her to court, where her husband would be, too, and the Browns dropped everything to go with her.

“How many of these MMA trainers that trash me are taking abused women to court and protecting them at their house?” Brown says.

In one harrowing 2010 story, Fox Detroit anchor Taryn Asher, then a reporter for the affiliate, got a call from a man who said his child had been abducted from his house by unknown people. He said he’d called Detroit PD and the FBI but that no one would help.

Asher launched on what she thought was a shocking story of a stolen infant. The man said a group of unknown people in uniforms knocked on the door and asked for his ID. In the blur of activity, he didn’t notice two people duck into the house and take the baby.

It was all caught on surveillance cameras outside the home, and in the middle of all of the action were two familiar faces: Dale and Mirela Brown.

As Asher worked on the story, the man’s version of events began to unravel. The mother of the child had filed a personal protection order against the man, saying she’d been abused and trapped until she found a way to escape. A Detroit anti-domestic violence advocate then gave her the info of two people who could help — the Browns.

Brown organized a precise approach to the house. Three cars packed with well-armed D.U.S.T. workers parked outside. A driver waited in each car while Brown led a surge to the front door. “Get in, get out,” Brown said.

Brown distracted the man, while Mirela and the mom darted into the house and grabbed the baby. Because this was her legal residence, she had access to the home.

Once the baby was in a car, the dramatic footage shows Brown, decked out in the full Detroit Self-Defense Guy gear, walk out onto the front lawn as the mom runs with her baby cradled in her arms. The confused dad, an alleged Detroit drug dealer, wanders out as the cars leave. He had no idea what just happened.

One of the drivers that day was Brian Johnson. Johnson was a star college athlete in the early 1990s as Stanford’s starting quarterback and a future MLB draft pick. He played nine years with multiple MLB teams, then later won three World Series rings (2010, 2012, 2014) as an advance scout for the San Francisco Giants.

Johnson worked and trained with Brown during the MLB offseason that year, and considers some of the domestic violence protection work among the highlights of his life, right up there with the World Series rings. During that time, he drove about 10 domestic violence survivors to and from court, or from one shelter to another.

On the day of the baby rescue, Johnson says he felt jittery and a little scared as they drove over. “I didn’t know what we were walking into,” he says.

But Brown calmly reassured him and everybody else that if they followed his plan, they’d be fine. And they were. The whole thing took less than 10 minutes. The mom relocated to another state shortly afterward, and Asher’s wild, twisting and turning story aired that night on Fox.

“I felt like we did something to make a difference,” Johnson says. “I knew something bad might happen. But I trust Dale. Yes, he’s building a brand on the internet now. But he’s spent his life protecting people.”

Johnson and Brown say they’d heard rumors the man wanted Detroit PD to arrest them. It’s an interesting line between private security and policing that Brown has learned to dance along.

When contacted about Brown, a spokesperson said Detroit Police Department has gotten several inquiries about him over the past year. He said the department has no official relationship with Brown, D.U.S.T. or Threat Management. “If a citizen wants to hire a private security firm to look into or investigate a case,” the spokesperson, Rudy Harper, said, “that would be up to that citizen to handle or make that decision.”

Harper said he couldn’t offer much more of an official Detroit Police Department comment on Brown. But near the end of the call, he offered his own personal admiration for what Brown has done.

“I think it’s cool that he’s got this social media fame and is being recognized and continues to do his thing,” Harper says. “I don’t think he’s harming anybody, and it’s fun to see him put Detroit on the map in a way where he just wants people to be safe.”

THERE IS NOTHING that brings more joy to Dale Brown than showing his techniques on people. He catches a lot of flak for demonstrating on often overmatched practice partners who immediately collapse — and that includes a recent visitor from ESPN.

Brown is impressive in person. He’s a big dude, and when he latches on to a wrist or a nose, his strength is undeniable. Knowing pressure points and ways to leverage hands to break fingers or remove weapons is his lifeblood, and it warms his heart to hear someone yell in pain and ask for the demonstrations to be over.

He prefers to show off his techniques on you rather than to you. Brown is almost like a magician, with the way he can distract with a calm voice during simulated confrontations — “I can Bryant Gumbel people,” he calls it. He’s 53 years old but seems 10 years younger physically, with the energy of a 25-year-old.

At one point, he’s talking about some of the most effective strategies that small people can do on bigger attackers, and mentions a “hyoid squeeze.” He notices a raised eyebrow and begins to close the distance. Whatever a “hyoid squeeze” is, he’s going to come over and perform it on me right now and … oh god, make it stop.

Brown’s fingers pinch around the middle of my throat and it feels like game over if he wants it to be. He has an ability to make eye contact and Gumbel the person in front of him before some awful maneuver is about to happen. Then he laughs. “Did you feel that?” he says a few times, knowing the answer is yes.

These one-on-one displays also showcase the points he has been trying to make about the difference between sports training and self-defense training. “We use all of the stuff you’re not allowed to do in the UFC,” he says.

Brown is a master of eye gouges, bites, twisted fingers and, of course, groin strikes. He’s showing how even a punch or kick to the groin might not be enough in a desperate situation when Mirela jumps in with more specific advice. “Grab, twist, pull,” she yells.

She gets done with those three words and woo boy, look at the time, let’s wrap up the actual demonstrations right there.

In these moments, he is Commander Dale Brown, with Mirela recording in the background. He dials up his voice, does the thing with his hands and talks about “increasing urban survivability.” It’s over the top, but it feels fun and harmless. As his critics note, it’s unlikely the world is relying upon these 30-second videos for more than entertainment.

Brown says they should be, though, and so do his D.U.S.T.-mates. Brandon Hunt, a former Detroit cop and King of the Cage MMA fighter, went 9-10 as a pro, fighting guys as good as current rising UFC star Sean Strickland. His blood starts boiling when he talks about the vitriol he catches for vouching for Brown.

“You know my integrity,” he says. “You know if I am tapping it’s not just for any reason. I feel this stuff. This crap hurts, and it hurts bad, and it hurts fast. I’d tell anybody to come down and check it out and try it.”

But when pressed that perhaps there are some moves that Brown is posting that might not all be winners, he says, “There are. You’d have to be in the zone to hit some of them.”

And if he truly challenged his boss to a fight? “If we …” he begins. “It depends on the rules. I don’t know if you’ve seen him kick, but he has some very good kicks. I wasn’t a big kicker. Dale is a very strong guy. I’d have to work for it. But what would get me is the tactics of jiu-jitsu that I’m not used to.”

Later, Hunt circles back and mentions how in other sports, nobody expects, say, Bill Belichick to be able to cover NFL wide receivers himself in order to be able to teach defensive backs. He loves Brown and wholeheartedly endorses his teachings. In fact, during an eight-year stint as an instructor at the Detroit police academy, Hunt says he incorporated multiple strategies and techniques into the curriculum for cadets. “Dale’s stuff works,” he says.

But if self-defense is a life-or-death proposition, are short-form social media videos really the way to teach them?

Brown demonstrates a wrist lock on Detroit Fire Department chief James Harris. Brown and Harris filmed a short video for the fire department’s social media channels. Sarah Rice for ESPN

Brown gets animated about this topic. Like, really animated. But he has a funny way of barking at you. He’s so passionate and fiery, so intense, that loud arguments feel oddly peaceful and entertaining. It can feel like he is arguing about you, rather than with you.

“This might be their one chance to see the solution, to save themselves and their family. That’s all they got,” he says, voice rising.

But can any person really save their life using a technique they saw on Instagram for 30 seconds?

“That’s dumb,” he says. “That’s very dumb. You’re thinking about it ass backwards. You’re talking about sports. Yes, I can’t become a great wrestler in 30 seconds. But could I kill a wrestler in five seconds? Yes. I can bite a hole in his throat.”

OK, fine, but wouldn’t it be better if somebody gets interested online and then signs up for an actual course because …

Brown’s head is shaking no so fast it might roll off his body. “You don’t need to take a class,” he says. “F— the class. But if you want more survivability, yes, take the class. You don’t need a bunch of training to survive. You need lots of options to increase survivability.”

Like in so many of his videos, it’s time to tap out.

AT THE END OF A LONG DAY, dusk has arrived and it’s time for D.U.S.T. to lock up for the evening.

Brown walks toward the front door and stops. He’s still in his uniform, still has the bone conduction headphones around his head even though he hasn’t seemed to actually use them. He’s standing in the merch and gear zone of the D.U.S.T. lobby. There are gas masks, air filters, night vision goggles and a $1,300 satellite phone on the wall. “Everything you need for survival,” he says.

On the counter sits a rack of infamous keychains that he recently used in a viral video. It looks like a pen with ridges and a very sharp point, and in the video, Brown shows a slew of ways to use the device to fend off attackers.

Is it an effective way to stop an attacker? Perhaps. Isn’t an actual pen or a key or just about any other object capable of similar effectiveness if you stick it in someone’s eye or grind it into their chest? Probably. Regardless, the video blew up, with 44 million views and counting, with almost 17,000 comments, many torching it for being silly.

Brown with his family — wife, Mirela Brown, son, Kenan Ahmic, 18; and daughter, Indira Brown, 7; inside the D.U.S.T. center. Sarah Rice for ESPN

The kicker? In the weeks after the video went up, Brown says he sold $12,000 worth of keychains.

As he preps to lock up for the day, he gets animated again in defense of his self-defense. Man, Dale Brown loves self-defense sooooo much. Goof on his techniques, laugh at his keychains, tell him he posts too much … but never question Brown’s belief in himself or what he teaches.

The sun has just set as he opens the D.U.S.T. front door and walks onto the busy street in front.

“What motivates me is this: We can actually save people’s lives with this information,” he says. “Years ago, I realized this is more important than anything, to get the information out there. I get a high off of going in and stopping violence. It’s a great feeling. What’s also great, what’s also even better, is when they do it for themselves, because they took your information and saved themselves.”

He’s rubbing his eye still, and it looks a little red after his daughter’s botched sparring session from earlier in the day.

“Man, she hit me in the eyeball,” he says. “I think she cut my eye. I see two of you right now. She literally stabbed me right in my eyeball.”

He’s a black belt at always sweeping the area for humor and finding it, though, so as he extends a handshake, he’s smiling as he playfully yanks his left eyelid down, the scene of the surprise attack from earlier.

This feels like the real Dale Brown, the commander and the neighborhood security guy and the dad and the goofball, all rolled up under the same uniform. He waves one more time before he turns back toward the front door, just some dude in Detroit, and the cars whiz by almost drowning out his last words.

“Good-good,” he says.